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Ski Bumming in Telluride


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“If there were a degree in ski bumming, I’d have a doctorate.” Jack Carey, 58, known around Telluride as Captain Jack, is not boasting but observing that he’s employed every imaginable trick to ski 120 days per year for three decades. A sampling of jobs from his multipage résumé includes: transporting ice blocks around Nantucket, washing dishes, waiting tables, tending bar, shoveling snow, wearing the Texaco Star, selling ski gear, testing skis, fitting boots, tuning skis, repping skis, cutting and pruning trees, appearing in commercials, modeling, building ski jumps for the early hot-dog circuit, assisting ski-film crews, organizing ski events, commentating for television stations, testing experimental hang gliders, selling hang gliders, organizing hang-gliding competitions and, of course, teaching skiing, coaching competitive skiers and guiding ski clients.

Before skiing permanently rearranged his priorities in 1972, Carey’s career followed convention. He completed college at Keene State in New Hampshire, spent four years in the Air Force, taught history and coached high school football. But at age 28 while helping his brother, Chip, then the on-snow photographer at Maine’s Sugarloaf/USA, film pro skiers, his conventional life imploded. “After watching those guys ski moguls and jump cornices, I told myself that’s what I wanted to do. My brother gave me the movie The Performers and I showed that in my classroom the rest of the school year. That summer I traveled to Snowbird, Utah, from where I mailed in my resignation.”

In the early years of his new life, Carey settled in Steamboat Springs, Colo., but because hang gliding, his summer addiction, was prohibited, he migrated to Telluride for the one-two punch of world-class skiing and flying. The ski resort was in its in-fancy, and Carey could build in-roads into the community in a way that may not have been possible at an established megaresort. “I feel for ski bums who arrive in Telluride now-it’s built out, developed, expensive…. I’d move on to a newer, less developed resort where I could sink roots and grow with the area.”

Another advantage of being involved with Telluride in its youth: the ability to buy real estate before the supernovian bloom of fame.

Today, if you perform an online search of homes for sale within a 15-mile radius of Telluride, only two listings cost less than $1 million. But says Carey of the 5,000-square-foot building lot he purchased in 1989, “It was a steal when it came on the market.” In 1993 he built on the property, and by keeping the home small, comparison shopping, investing sweat equity, bartering and enlisting friends from the construction trade, Captain Jack built a respec-table two-story, 1,800-square-foot home on a ski bum’s salary. He doesn’t have a mortgage. Frugality, creativity, flexibility, sweat equity-these are values at the heart of Carey’s modus operandi.

Although his income is mainly harvested in the summer and in some years is only several thousand dollars greater than the $9,000 the government calls poverty level, he’s completely solvent. He pays taxes, is fully insured, and through spartan attitudes, patience, and the ability to say no to consumerism, he lives with absolutely no debt.

On a month-to-month basis, he and his wife, Monica, each contribute $400 to a joint account covering monthly expenses-food, utilities, gas, entertainment, maintenance, incoming bills. This account does not cover health insurance (provided through Monica’s consulting business), season ski passes (early-season rate of $925 per person), major trips, and large home-improvement pro-jects. Still there’s no great financial mystery to his success. “We keep our needs simple, and if we can’t afford something outright, we wait until we can. It’s as simple as that,” Carey says.

In terms of his possessions port-folio, Carey is the antithesis of Yuppiedom. He avoids the he-with-the-most-toys-wins philosophy and tthe propensity to hitch one’s self-worth to his possessions. About the American preoccupation to own trophy homes, the newest toys, status cars, he says, “I don’t understand toiling to own so much yet having so little (time)…. Many people work all year and only log a week or two of slope time. I ski over 120 days a year, have traveled extensively on ski adventures and have spent many of my summers flying. That validates the choices I’ve made.”

“For me the American Dream hasn’t been about high-paying jobs or expensive possessions-it’s been about living an athletic, adventurous life.”

To achieve this end, Captain Jack has endured his share of mundane jobs-washing dishes, waiting tables, shoveling snow, pumping gas. But he tells aspiring ski bums this is the starting point, not the end point. Over the decades he has developed a deep quiver of skills and furthered his education. “I ski, instruct, guide and travel with top-level people. You need to know a lot to be of service to them.”

So when it’s all said and done, just what is the pedigree of Captain Jack’s education? Is he truly a Ph.D. of Ski Bumming, as he claims? By way of an answer, consider the area where Carey has set up shop. Due to its challenging and versatile ski terrain, indolent climate, geographic beauty, quick access to the Four-Corners area, and its summer-sports bounty, Telluride has burgeoned into a world-class resort. The average home within a 30-minute drive of town sells for more than $1.5 million. But among the affluent, second-home denizens of Telluride, there’s Captain Jack whose personal piece of paradise is eight miles from the nearest lift, slope time is 10 times that of the average skier and yearly income is less than what many Telluride newcomers spend on liposuction. That gives Captain Jack more than just a Ph.D.-the good doctor qualifies to head up a university ski-bumming department.

HOUSEHOLD INCOME median: $51,938; from $75,000 to $150,000, 35 percent; more than $150,000, 33 percent
EDUCATION 500 students K-12; 43 percent of residents have college degrees
NEAREST TOWN OF SIZE Montrose, population 13,000, 65 miles away Mountain Facts base elevation: 8,725 feet; vertical rise: 3,165 feet; skiable acres: 1,050; average snowfall: 250 inches; terrain: 21 percent beginner, 47 percent intermediate, 32 percent advanced
SKI BUMMING Telluride has no stoplights, chain restaurants, chain grocers or drive-through services. Though now a glamour resort, Telluride is still a ski-bum magnet. Despite high real estate and ski pass prices, Telluride boasts a robust counter economy of sharing, scrounging and bartering that makes ski bumming possible.
BUSINESS CLIMATE Good work opportunities still exist in Telluride. The majority of jobs are related to tourism, but strong infrastructure (T1 and DSL lines) support telecommuters and computer-based home offices. Retail opportunities are viable. Professional services supporting the highly educated residents of the region hold promise. The community supports artistic endeavors. A number of innovative clothing manufacturers (Jagged Edge, Horny Toad) started here, as did Astara, a successful skincare line. And the local government and residents support small shops and struggling entrepreneurs over chain stores and big business. Woe to anyone wishing to establish a McDonald’s franchise here.